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Manor's Defence from Polonia cycle – Artur Grottger

Artur Grottger, "Obrona dworu" z cyklu "Polonia", fot. Wikipedia
Artur Grottger, Manor's Defence from Polonia cycle, photo: Wikipedia

In his cycle Polonia from 1863, Grottger does not show the grand history, he chooses to represent January Uprising in micro scale. Lives of Polish families, which were inevitably changed by the year 1863, are captured in private, sometimes intimate scenes. There is a sudden Branka [trans. Roundup], desperate Mournful Tidings, a tragic moment Po Odejściu Wroga [trans. After The Enemy Has Left], and one of the most suggestive ones is Obrona Dworu [trans. Manor’s Defence]

We see the titular defence from the inside of the house, from the perspective of its inhabitants that barricaded themselves in one of the rooms. The painting is divided into two, equally engaging parts. On the right there are two uprising soldiers guarding the door, on the left we see civilians, who do not engage in the fight – women, children and an old man.

Similarly to other paintings from the cycle, Grottger tries to show what is called a ‘bountiful moment’, that is a moment that when the viewer sees it, he/she is able to reconstruct what happened before and what is going to happen in a moment. Characters’ behaviour (defending men, crying women) informs us that the unseen enemy is approaching. The toy, turned upside down at the ground and the cloak lying on the floor seem to suggest a great rush. We can assume that the news about approaching Russians came much too late for the inhabitants to hide or flee. The artist decided not to show the fight itself in order to abstain from straightforward brutality and making the viewer contemplate family’s future fate.

Metaphorical meaning, easily decoded by the spectator, focuses on motives such as an attacked house, family in danger, defence against some alien evil. In the case of this particular painting, the patriotic symbolism is hidden deeper, as Polonia is not a universal story about tragic human lot, but it’s about the life of Poles during January Uprising. A Manor, a polish house becomes the definition of Polish identity. Learning Polish, patriotic upbringing and getting to know Polish culture couldn’t be done in public, as it was claimed by the Russians, so it took place in private space, inside people’s homes. The assault on the manor  is not only the attack on the house, it’s also the attack on the foundations of Polish patriotism.

It’s good to remember that the bizarre political situation of Poland during the partitions had great influence on the political situation of Polish women. The house was traditionally woman’s domain, so women naturally took over new, social obligations. What is more they often had to fill in for missing or fighting men, and had to take care of the property, organise help and aid for the soldiers, hide fleeing insurgents or documents, take care of the supplies etc.

However, the typical division between active men and passive women still exists in Manor’s Defence. The men barricade the door with their own bodies, and at the same time try to listen for any sign of enemy activity. They are young, strong and armed, and viewers are sure that they will defend their family to the end. Even the old man, however frail he looks with his walking stick, contrasts with the women. He is calm in face of danger, his resignation and hollow eyes suggests that he wishes he could fight.

On the other hand, women’s gestures and face expressions signify their fear, panic and helplessness. The young woman kneels dramatically, raising her eyes to the sky. Her figure, visibly outlined with a white contour, in a focal point of the tragedy, it makes the spectator about what is going to happen to them. The old woman, looking cautiously at the door, embraces maternally two young children. Another young lass buries her face in her hands, reminiscent of the women from Mournful Tidings.

The motif of Polish manor during the uprising, as is shown in Manor’s Defence, was a clear representation of the tragedy that 1863 brought about and its impact on Polish families. Grottger used this motif twice more, once while creating a woodcarving copy of aforementioned carton with tweaked composition, the second time in Burning Manor near Miechowo (1864/1865). The motif was also used by other artists, such as Władysław Bakałowicz’s The 1863 Scene – Revision (1875-1885).

  • Artur Grottger, Manor’s Defence from Polonia cycle, 1863, crayon on carton.

Written by Karolina Dzimira-Zarzycka, January 2017. Translated by AS February 2017.

Tags: artur grottgerjanuary uprisingromanticismdrawingpolish painting 19th century

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